Social unrest during the summer of 2020 invigorated the movement for justice and accountability in American policing. Over two years have passed from those days of demonstrations in Sonoma County and across the nation.
KRCB sat down with the new leader of the county's sheriff oversight group for a conversation about his new role and making it easier for whistle blowing.
"It's been my experience in other police oversight agencies that transparency and accountability are really essential for making sure that law enforcement is performing the way we expect it to, but also in making sure the law enforcement and community are talking to each other about each other's expectations and needs," John Alden said.
He has led the Independent Office of Law Enforcement Review and Outreach, IOLERO, for less than four months. But the veteran of law enforcement oversight got his start in Sonoma County, working as a deputy district attorney in the Sonoma County DA's Office in the late 90’s.
Now he’s back after nearly 14 years working on police accountability in San Francisco, and most recently Oakland.
Heading up sheriff oversight presents a new kind of task for Alden compared to scrutinizing police forces.
"I think one of the most important differences is that sheriffs are elected, chiefs of police are hired or appointed by a city, usually a city manager or a city council," Alden said. "In cities, it's much easier to create oversight systems of lots of different kinds because ultimately everybody's working for the same city council or city manager, and they can direct almost any kind of change that they might want. In California with sheriffs being elected, sheriffs just have more autonomy."
Alden said since 2020 he has observed an explosive growth in the number of law enforcement oversight roles and offices around the country. While IOLERO has existed since 2015, he still feels the agency is cutting edge.
"The auditor model makes a lot of sense in a sheriff environment because unless the sheriff wants to hire civilians to do the direct investigation of internal affairs cases, the only other option really that the county has is to create a review model," Alden said. "And so that's what we have here in Sonoma County. Most counties do not have any kind of, even an auditor model."
Alden said one of his first orders of business is building out a system for receiving whistleblower complaints.
"Measure P allows IOLERO to accept complaints directly from employees here in the county about things they see going on at the sheriff's office," Alden said. "A lot of oversight systems do not have a whistleblower function. They only accept complaints from members of the public or people who are on the outside. So this whistleblower power is unusual and important."
At present IOLERO can only begin its independent review of officer involved deaths after a completed internal sheriff's investigation. Asked when IOLERO will be able to review officer involved deaths or complaints.
"I definitely hear that concern and are working on that," Alden said. "Now, I don't know how that's going to resolve yet, but all of us at the county have definitely heard that concern and are working on it."
Alden said he feels encouraged by his reception from sheriff leadership.
"The sheriff's office has been really helpful too," Alden said. "I've had conversations with the outgoing sheriff and our new incoming sheriff, and they've been very transparent with me and indicated that they want to help build out all of these processes under Measure P."
He said he’s working towards establishing a relationship with rank and file deputies as well.
"I would say that while it's always important for a county to understand what's going on with the people that work for the county, including deputies, and hear their experience, it's also the case that here in Sonoma County, the public has spoken very directly about what they want to see with respect to oversight," Alden said. "And there's no mistaking that measure P is a clear signal that the people of this county are deeply invested in having an oversight model here, for the Sheriff's office specifically."
Alden said he hopes to take IOLERO beyond the role of a reactive review board.
Ideally, oversight provides an opportunity for the public to express their concerns about specific incidents and to know that somebody who's independent of law enforcement is taking a close look at it and giving an independent opinion," Alden said. "In the future, I'd also like us to create opportunities for law enforcement and community to talk proactively about how law enforcement should behave in the future."
He said Sonoma County is well poised.
"Here in Sonoma County, a great strength we have is this community advisory council that can do exactly that," Alden said. "They can have conversations between the public and the sheriff's office."
Mindful of balancing the concerns, and sometimes competing interests, of both community and law enforcement, Alden pointed to the stated mandate of public service as a guide.
"Historically, I think too often law enforcement and community did not talk to each other about public expectation," Alden said. "For some in the community, I think that came from a place of frustration where they felt like no one was listening to them, and that's an understandable sentiment. For some in law enforcement, I think there was a feeling that they knew best and they didn't need to talk to community about it. And I think that was, you know, an unfortunate perspective among those who had it. Not everybody had that perspective, and I've always admired folks in law enforcement who are willing to see the public as their clients and to see themselves as servants of the public. And remember that they'd be having conversation with the public about public expectations first and then figure out law enforcement action second. And so I hope there's opportunity to do that here in Sonoma County too."